September 4, 2013 - 21:15 AMT
PanARMENIAN.Net - President Bashar al-Assad's former defense minister has fled Syria, opposition figures said on Wednesday, Sept 4, noting that General Ali Habib was the most senior of Assad's Alawite sect to defect, Reuters reported.
Habib had been under house arrest since resigning in protest at Assad's crackdown on demonstrators in 2011 but had managed to reach the Turkish border late on Tuesday with Western help, Kamal al-Labwani of the Syrian National Coalition told Reuters.
Other sources also said Habib had fled but Syrian state television denied he had left his home and Turkey's foreign minister said he could not confirm the general had defected.
The flight of Habib, if confirmed, would lend credibility to suggestions that parts of the Alawite community may be turning against Assad. Previous high-level defections have generally involved Sunni officers, Reuters says.
"Ali Habib has managed to escape from the grip of the regime and he is now in Turkey, but this does not mean that he has joined the opposition. I was told this by a Western diplomatic official," the SNC's Kamal al-Labwani said from Paris.
Born in 1939, Habib was defense minister from June 2009 to August 2011 and has also served as Chief of the General Staff of the Syrian Army. He is from the port city of Tartus.
Some opposition sources say that Habib disagreed with the use of force against protesters at the start of the revolt in 2011. Those sources say he was dismissed. He later said publicly that he had left the post for health reasons.